Finding the Space to Plan for Innovation

By Tim Barnes

How are we to develop spaces that are best suited to 21st Century requirements for environments that encourage innovation and knowledge development and that then leads to new jobs and venture creation?

A year ago, Kat Hanna of the Centre for London (CfL) produced a report on innovation districts entitled ‘Spaces to Think’ that helped identify many of the key drivers and in her review of the twelve months since, many of these look even more important, urgent and unstoppable.

But how can we deliver on that vision in our urban environment? What are the tools we can use to make the best innovation spaces, spurred on by national drivers, including the UK’s new industrial strategy, or locally focused regeneration?

Any attempt to redevelop a major urban area is fraught with difficulties: getting the consent of all the relevant freeholders, the planning approvals, raising the capital needed, decanting existing businesses and residents… and that’s all before you actually build, change plans and try selling the new space to skeptical buyers. Only a small number of large firms and government agencies can even think of making it work.

Now mix in a desire to make something special happen; the belief that just pulling down the old and replacing with new is insufficient. Add in the aim to build something of national importance that will transform lives and offer hope-filled commitments of what can be achieved if only we dare dream. Can we build better cities? Can we encourage innovation in how we design our spaces?

Active management to create spaces capable of supporting and enhancing the innovation possibilities, to me, seems to fall in to two categories: Retro-fit and ground-up developments.

In London, the biggest redevelopment project of recent times has been around King’s Cross, just north of the station. Started in 2001 it has been the largest urban building site in Europe for much of its life, covering more than 65 acres and is now more than three-quarters complete with nearly 2,000 new homes and 50 new buildings. It has also become the home to exciting new tenants such as Google, whose European HQ is now located there, Central St Martin’s and Havas. But while this collection of activities has undoubtedly brought economic renewal, it was not driven by an articulated urban plan to maximise innovation, knowledge or broader purpose.  Indeed, the redevelopment itself is part of a larger community around the station that includes one of the highest concentrations of knowledge-based institutions in the world, that has taken two centuries to develop.

The answer for areas such as King’s Cross has been to “retrofit” a knowledge-supporting infrastructure and support system onto the area. This has happened through initiatives such as the King’s Cross Knowledge Quarter (KQ), an ambitious attempt to connect the knowledge intensive institutions in the area and then link them to the local councils and communities.  It has also been enabled by positive use of planning gain initiatives, such as Section 106 agreements, by Camden Council including the development of an incubator for local companies, that I was responsible for in a previous role.

The King’s Cross area redevelopment has led to a marked improvement to a name recently associated mostly with poverty, drugs and prostitution and KQ is taking advantage of that to represent a positive, innovative face that covers the new development and the pre-existing institutions, including such organisations as UCL, the British Library, the Royal Veterinary College and over 75 others. KQ has provided a cohesive brand, a forum and a route for members of the local community to understand the benefits of having these world leading activities on their doorstep. Elsewhere in the UK, Corridor Manchester, provides a similar example of this approach.

It is harder for a development to begin with the explicit aim of developing a knowledge-based urban community from the ground up and attempts to do so have been rare. Arguably the last completed attempt to build a knowledge-based regeneration project in London was Albertopolis – the collection of museums and educational institutions in South Kensington that includes The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, Imperial College, The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Albert Hall among 20 or so knowledge-based institutions of national – or international – importance.

It is over 150 years since that project was initiated. We do not undertake these big scale projects frequently enough to build deep expertise relevant to the times we find ourselves in and capture that for use in subsequent redevelopments.

But in an era of knowledge-led working and living, there is increased urgency in understanding how we build new innovation-friendly spaces and retrofit urban support schemes into existing places. So how is this to be achieved and how do we ensure knowledge of what works and what does not is trapped in a manner that makes it accessible for future urban developments?

Following the 2012 London Olympic Games, the London Legacy Development Corporation has led plans for a knowledge-based development for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (QEOP) site at Stratford, to the east of the city. This has provided us with an exciting new opportunity to understand and record how a knowledge-based redevelopment emerges, why things are the way they are and then consider how we might improve them for future generations.

In addition to the new houses and the Westfield shopping centre that dominate the view of any visitor arriving via the new stations, HereEast is a cornerstone development based in the former media and broadcast facility buildings. It is home to one of the largest innovation spaces in Europe with 800 people to eventually find a home in just one of the initiatives there. There will also be an events programme and follow on space designed to attract innovative small companies and big businesses looking to relocate.

Across the QEOP there will be an Albertopolis-style co-location of these business facilities with several new university facilities, including Loughborough University’s London campus and UCL East, a major orchestra, an off shoot of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the first overseas facility for The Smithsonian Institute. All of this was dubbed Olympicopolis by previous London Mayor Boris Johnson, although his successor has considered a renaming that may leave the development more easily understood at the cost of the historic naming link.

Concerns remain that development will not achieve the benefits for local people that were promised when the scheme was first proposed. This is a common problem. How do we ensure that local residents and businesses are among the final beneficiaries? They are among the first to suffer the negative consequences of redevelopment, being moved at the start of major urban development projects to allow for site clearance and building work and may not have an opportunity to return for a decade. This means leaving areas they have called home all their lives, sometimes for generations, or leaving behind valued business premises and heritage. The promises made by the new arrivals have been doubted by some local residents and councilors, but the truth is that even with the best intentions, we do not always have complete answers to allay their concerns.

We need to understand more of what does and does not work to make these things successful. That’s why research from the likes of CfL and INTER-CEP are so needed – and welcome.



Tim was the originator of Inter-Cep in 2012 and has managed large and small organisations in the private and public sectors ranging from universities to venture capital firms, leading start up companies, charities, political campaigns and public bodies. In 2016, he launched The Rain Gods, a new business that will focus on working with universities and corporates to support their development of entrepreneurial eco-systems. Until January 2016, Tim was the Director of UCL Enterprise Operations since 2011 and Director of UCL Advances since 2007, the centre for entrepreneurship at University College London. Prior to 2007, Tim spent six years running his own business, which helped universities and large corporations to spin-out high technology companies. Tims background experience includes working as an investment manager at a pan-European investment firm focussed on early-stage technology ventures and as a management consultant at one of the worlds largest professional services firms. His personal work in politics and through charities has added to his substantial network at national, regional and local levels. He graduated from UCL in 1997 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In 2014 was awarded the Queens Award for Enterprise Promotion for life and was listed in the Sunday Times Maserati 100 for 2015.

Posted on March 24th, 2017 under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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